Analysis | Four charts that analyze how omicron’s wave compares to previous coronavirus peaks


The United States continues to see a huge spike in coronavirus cases driven by the omicron variant, with numbers surging to double that of the previous January 2021 peak.

D.C., in particular, has been hit hard. Previously low on the U.S. list of covid-burdened areas, D.C. has become one of the country’s worst coronavirus hot spots, with a much higher rate of cases per capita than any state despite a relatively high vaccination rate of about 85 percent.

But despite surging case numbers, deaths and severe hospitalizations rates have not followed that rise quite as intensely. Health-care workers are cautiously waiting to see if the United States’ omicron wave will follow that of South Africa and London, where the variant passed its peak while causing relatively few deaths and hospitalizations.

So far, omicron seems much more contagious, resulting in many more cases. Unlike previous waves, the data shows that deaths and hospitalizations drastically separate from cases, indicating a decoupling of cases and severe disease.

However, it’s important to note that even if omicron could have a lower hospitalization rate, the much higher infection rate still means the overall hospitalization number has still recently passed a record number.

The lowered severity of the disease could have a lot to do with innate features of omicron and the protection offered by the vaccines. Improved treatments may also account for this, although that impact is limited by the short supply of antiviral pills. All of these factors could account for fewer hospitalizations and deaths — an unprotected population might’ve been hit much harder by omicron.

South Africa serves as a best-case scenario for other nations also experiencing an omicron wave. The variant both rose and declined there very quickly and caused milder outcomes, reaching its peak without too many deaths.

However, Africa CDC cautions against immediately assuming omicron’s mildness will extrapolate to other countries, noting South Africa’s unique status on vaccination rates and demographics.

For example, Salim Abdool Karim, a top South African infectious-disease scientist, told the Washington Post that more than 70 percent of South African residents have previously been infected by non-omicron coronavirus variants and may retain more protection against omicron as a result.

The country also has a relatively young population — the median age is 28, a full decade lower than that of the United States, according to Census Bureau data.

Meanwhile, though cases in Britain overall continue to rise, London has already passed its peak while following a similar curve to that of South Africa.

If the rest of Britain follows London, there may be a stronger case for omicron’s lessened severity elsewhere in the world as well.

“Data from South Africa is critical. Data from South Africa, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and New York paint a more complete picture,” said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the record.

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